Report on Gordon Palmer Hall reveals health risks


CW / David Gray

The Academic Program Review Team released a report on Gordon Palmer Hall in November 2021.

Isabel Hope, Assistant News Editor

From the outside, Gordon Palmer Hall is just another building on the University of Alabama campus. For more than 50 years, UA students have attended classes at 505 Hackberry Lane to learn about psychology and the human decision-making process. 

Some of those students are now questioning University administration due to two departmental reviews, performed 11 years apart, which revealed that Gordon Palmer Hall poses a health risk to everyone inside. 

More than 11 years after the first report, nothing has changed. 

‘Dreary at best’

Cory Armstrong, Caroline Boxmeyer and Marcia Hay-McCutcheon are members of the Academic Program Review Team, a group of UA employees selected to review departments at the University. 

In October 2021, they conducted a review of the psychology department located within Gordon Palmer Hall.

They co-authored a report that was released to department faculty in November 2021. The Crimson White obtained the report in January 2022. 

The report first noted that the psychology department is in a “time of transition” with professor and department Chair Thompson Davis beginning in summer 2021. 

The Academic Program Review Team previously conducted a departmental review in 2011 and concluded that significant issues exist, including mold and asbestos. 

“This space is badly in need of renovation — both from a cosmetic perspective and from a functional needs perspective,” the 2011 report stated. “The space is dreary at best, and the current layout is not optimal for the current activities within the department.”

The authors of the 2011 report also raised concerns about accessibility issues for students and older adult research participants. The building has one accessible entrance, but it is located on the opposite side of the building from high-use classrooms and relevant research labs.

The authors of the 2011 review recommended a complete renovation of Gordon Palmer Hall. They toured the building during the 2021 review and found that no changes had been made.

“All of the facility issues noted in 2011 remain,” the report states. “In the meantime, they have escalated to present substantial health and safety risks. Recurrent mold and mildew are present in faculty offices and areas trafficked by a high volume of UA students. Faculty and students with asthma and autoimmune issues reported experiencing health problems that appear connected to spending time in the building.” 

They reported pooled water inside of light fixtures that presented an electrocution risk, as well as uneven flooring. Psychology faculty members reported losing valuable data and files due to flooding. 

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Joseph Messina said an alternative space was offered to the department, according to the report, but faculty and students in the psychology department said they were never formally offered that space. The Academic Program Review Team confirmed this through a review of email correspondence.

UA spokesperson Deidre Stalnaker said this space would have been the 1 North building on the Peter Bryce Campus. 

“Dean Messina said he raised the idea of alternate space that would have required renovations in the 1 North building on the Peter Bryce Campus to the department’s leaders,” she said. “The intra-departmental discussion did not seem to be going anywhere, and the opportunity was lost in time as the space was put to other use.”

The department’s current location near the center of campus is desirable due to the large number of students it serves.

‘Not a good place’

Anna Bending, a graduate psychology student and president of the University’s National Honors Society psychology chapter Psi Chi, said she is continually disgusted by Gordon Palmer Hall.

“It’s not a good place,” Bending said. “It just reminds me of a creepy old high school or an insane asylum. It’s very gross and very moldy. When it’s really, really hot out it gets mildewy and absolutely disgusting.”

Some professors have told Bending they don’t go to their offices anymore because of mold growing on their chairs and throughout their offices. 

“A lot of faculty have kind of been pushed aside and told to deal with it on their own,” she said. “I know a lot of faculty have dehumidifiers if they’re going to go to the office. I know a lot of faculty who don’t even go into their offices anymore because of the state of Gordon Palmer.

Lexie Harrison, a doctoral student in the psychology department, said the mold has impacted her personally.

“The mold is something that I personally had to deal with,” Harrison said. “Even trying to get tiles replaced in that office space that we’re in took over a month to get the mold out of our office. We had to contact people multiple times to get it removed.”

Harrison works in a narrow space and said the poor conditions can be a problem for those spending long hours in the space.

Besides the mold, Bending said the overall condition of Gordon Palmer Hall is not conducive to a learning environment.

“There are almost no outlets,” she said. “There’s literally chairs that are broken. You go into some of the classrooms and the AC is so broken that we walk in and it feels like you walked into a sweat room.”

‘Into the future’

The November 2021 report was shared with University administration, but the authors have not received a response.  

The review recommended “addressing the department’s aging and unsafe facilities as soon as possible, while minimizing disruptions to teaching and research,” revisiting discussions about moving to an alternative space, and developing formal spaces for the research centers housed within Gordon Palmer Hall. 

UA spokesperson Shane Dorrill said that UA Facilities and Grounds are not aware of any current mold issues in Gordon Palmer Hall.

Dorrill said the University has made some improvements, including inspecting all HVAC systems, inspecting for leaks, checking roof systems, installing dehumidifiers, replacing fluorescent light bulbs with LEDs and adding new paint to some rooms. 

Bending said she feels that the University is not putting effort into upgrading Gordon Palmer Hall because of financial disparity despite the psychology program bringing in significant donations.

The psychology department generated $5.56 million in external grant awards in 2020 and $4.56 million in external grant awards in 2021, making it the top-earning department in the College of Arts and Sciences, placing it among the top 10 grant-earning units at the University. 

Since 2011, the department has submitted an average of 30 grant proposals per year, with a high of 53 proposals submitted in 2020-21.

“UA wants all their big money coming from athletics,” she said. “It’s coming from business and coming from engineering, and they don’t want to acknowledge that the psych program is one of the biggest undergrad programs. I don’t think UA is really giving the much-needed credit to the psych program.”

The psychology program has about 1,200 undergraduate students enrolled as psychology majors and 900 enrolled in the minor. The graduate program has about 100 students. There are more than 45 faculty members in the department. 

The 2021 report concluded that those who work in Gordon Palmer Hall deserve better conditions.

“While all of these options will require a significant financial investment, the department is functioning at a high level (in terms of credit hours generated, graduates produced and research productivity) and is consistently described as one of the strongest departments at the university. Thus, the department deserves a facility that reflects this and will continue to raise its prominence into the future,” the report concluded.

Bending said the issues surrounding Gordon Palmer Hall have made her question why she would give back to the University after graduating. 

“I think UA just needs to revise their vision, because I think they’re getting away from being an institution that really focuses on creating a great research institution,” she said. “You can’t have these great research aspirations if you’re not providing the necessary resources.”

Psychology department Chair Thompson Davis did not respond to a request for comment. 

Authors of the report Cory Armstrong and Marcia Hay-McCutcheon declined to comment. Caroline Boxmeyer did not respond to a request for comment. 

This story was published in the Health Edition. View the complete issue here.

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